Two images accompanying this article neatly frame Tim Murnane’s story, even though they were photographed only nine years apart in his six-decade life in baseball. In the first photograph — a rollicking “Old Timers’ Day” at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor on August 12, 1908 — Murnane was at the pinnacle of his career. Striking a dapper pose in waistcoat, cravat, and boutonniere, the longtime baseball columnist of the Boston Globe reunited with some of the men with whom he had played ball in the 1870s. In the other photograph, taken on September 27, 1917, he is present in name only at the “Murnane Benefit Game,” with the proceeds designated for his widow; the defending champion Boston Red Sox, behind star lefthander Babe Ruth, shut out an all-star team led by Connie Mack.
But chronology is God’s way of telling a story, so why don’t we begin this portrait at the beginning, on June 4, 1851, when Timothy Hayes Murnan was born in Naugatuck, New Haven County, Connecticut. An obituary notice in the Naugatuck Daily News placed his birth in Tipperary County, Ireland, but when Murnan applied for a passport in 1874, he had sworn that he was born in Naugatuck. At some point after that he commenced to spell his name as Murnane, and he will be thus referenced below.
He began his baseball career as catcher for the Osceola of Stratford Club, in 1869, a formidable nine that two years later would feature “Orator” Jim O’Rourke, future Hall of Famer, on its state champion squad. By that time, however, Murnane was off in Georgia, having been recruited by the Savannahs, a barnstorming professional team. When he returned to the state of his birth with his Southern teammates in the summer of 1871, he played so well that he was engaged by the Mansfield Club of Middletown, which would play the following season in what was then the big league, the National Association (NA). The club’s backers also signed Orator Jim, almost a year older than Handsome Tim.
The major-league Mansfields enjoyed only a brief run of 23 games before disbanding, but both Stratford alumni landed on their feet. O’Rourke, who had batted .307, was signed by the Boston Red Stockings, who would top the NA for the three remaining years of its existence. Murnane, who had played first base for Middletown and batted .359, was snapped up by the Athletics. The two Nutmeggers reunited not only when Boston played Philadelphia but also in England, when in 1874 the two clubs conducted baseball’s first overseas tour. A speedy and nimble baserunner, Murnane perpetrated a legendary stunt in a game at Boston on June 14, 1873, when he escaped an otherwise unavoidable out by jumping clean over second baseman Andy Leonard, who was stooping to tag him.
In 1875 Murnane transferred his allegiance to the Philadelphia White Stockings, also known as the Pearls, and when that team vanished along with the entire NA structure, he joined O’Rourke on Harry Wright’s Boston club in the new National League (NL) for the centennial year of 1876. There he remained for two seasons before seeing an opportunity in Providence, where a new NL franchise was launched for the 1878 campaign. But Murnane’s hitting dropped off badly; while O’Rourke was to remain a big-league star for another dozen years, for Murnane the end was suddenly in sight. In 1879 he began the season with the Capital City Club, of Albany, New York, which was thereafter transferred to Rochester, in a crumbling league.
In 1880 Murnane called it quits and went into business, including, over the ensuing years, opening a saloon and billiard hall in Boston and serving a stint as publisher of The Boston Referee, a sporting paper devoted to baseball, polo and other sports. It was short lived, but it testified to the printer’s ink in Murnane’s blood. He contributed baseball items to the New York Clipper and other papers and began to develop a following, for he wrote the way he spoke — like a ballplayer. In an age of Victorian reserve, restraint, and moralizing (exemplified in the writing of Henry Chadwick), this was an innovation. Murnane was the first former ballplayer to become a professional writer.
All the same, stitching together a living with a variety of entrepreneurial ventures held no special charm for a young man with baseball still on his mind. When Henry V. Lucas organized the Union Association (UA) as a major league in 1884 and George Wright capitalized the Boston entry, Murnane took a minority position and agreed not only to be the club’s on-field manager but also to play first base. He performed the former task better than he did the latter, but it didn’t matter, as the UA did not return for a second season. Murnane drifted off to play a few more games for a club in Jersey City, then called it quits again, this time for good.
In 1886 Murnane was engaged, together with John J. Drohan, to do baseball work as a staffer for the Globe. When Drohan soon left, Murnane was given full charge, rising to head the entire sports department for a generation. And he died in harness, filing a story just one hour before suffering a massive heart attack in the lobby of the Shubert Theater on February 7, 1917. When he died at age 65 he was not only the voice of baseball in Boston; his opinionated style had become a national institution. Along the way Murnane had also served as president, secretary, and treasurer of the New England League and Eastern League. He had acted, too, as an “ivory hunter,” directing to the big leagues such talented youngsters as Tommy McCarthy, Hugh Duffy, Cannonball Crane, Mike Slattery, Dupee Shaw, John Irwin, and many others who, as it turned out, would join him for the Peddock’s Island fest.
Back then you could only get to the island by boat; today you can board a water taxi or even land a helicopter, but unlike a hundred years ago, no one goes there to have a good time anymore. The Conservation Department rangers operate a visitors’ center in the summer and lovers of unspoiled beauty put up with the absence of such amenities as power and water to experience wilderness in sight of the metropolis. But this is not fun; it is a trial. Bordering Hingham Bay, the 134 acres of Peddock’s Island encompass four forested hills which include the moldering Fort Andrews Reservation and scores of turn-of-the-century summer cottages in varying states of decay. But read below how glowingly Baseball Magazine described the Old Timers’ Day in this now forlorn spot in its November 1908 issue; Old Tim, by then known as the Silver King for his flowing white hair, must have been in his glory, surrounded by former teammates and adversaries like Tommy Bond, Jack Manning, and Paul Hornung; once-young colts he had brought to the bigs like McCarthy and Shaw; brothers of the inkwell like Jacob C. Morse and Sam Crane, and Royal Rooter fixtures Mike Regan and “Nuf Ced” McGreevey.
They were privileged, indeed, who attended the Old Timers’ Day at Peddock’s Island in Boston Harbor this year. It occurred on Wednesday, August 12, an open day in the local major league schedule. Peddock’s Island was selected because it is the home of “Honest” John Irwin, a former professional ball player, of the famous Irwin family, fathered, as it were, by the veteran Arthur Irwin, who has been in touch with baseball this season as the scout of the New York club of the American League. Mine host Irwin always has on hand that which cheers the inner man, and he was kept busier than ever in his life before.
The photograph that was taken to memorize the occasion shows full well the character of the assemblage. Never before was such an array seen. The veterans of veterans were Arthur Cummings, the first man to develop the curve ball; “Dicky” Pearce, the greatest shortstop of his day, in his seventy-third year, and alas! it proved to be the last Old Timers’ Day that he will attend, for he caught a severe cold as the result of the outing, and soon afterwards passed away. [Chadwick had left this earth the same way earlier that year, catching cold on Opening Day in Brooklyn and dying soon after.]
Sam Crane, a crack second baseman in his day, and now one of the cleverest of writers on the game, came on especially to attend the gathering, and said he had the time of his life.
Some of the greatest lights of baseball were there — Tom Bond, without a superior in the seventies; Tom McCarthy, never beaten in his palmy days as fielder, run getter, base-runner and batsman; John Morrill, one of the cleverest all-round players that ever lived, and a splendid athlete today, although golf is his dearest love; Joe Hornung, a great outfielder with a record of eleven putouts and one assist, while a member of the Boston club; George Wood, long connected with the game as an outfielder, a fine player and hard hitter; Miah Murray, who played with Toronto, Providence and Washington, and for years umpired the games at dear old Harvard; Charley Farrell, one of the cleverest catchers that ever donned a protector or wore a mask; “Dupee” Shaw, a crack lefthander and widely sought years ago; “Connie” Murphy, of the old Brooklyn Players’ League team, and a team in himself; “Jack” Manning, prominent in the earliest days of professional baseball; “Tim” Murnane, brought up with the veteran “Jim” O’Rourke in good old Connecticut, always in and for the game; “Billy” Hawes, one of the most gentlemanly exponents of the good old game; Charley Ganzel, of Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia….
The weather was perfect, the game lasted nine full innings and was heartily enjoyed by all present, Old Boston winning from the opposing team 5 to 3.
That same two-run margin obtained on September 27, 1917, when Nuf Ced’s beloved Boston Americans squared off against a team whose outfield included Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Jackson. Actress Fanny Brice helped sell programs. Former heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan coached third base for the Red Sox. In pregame field events, Ruth won the fungo-hitting contest with a drive of 402 feet‚ while Joe Jackson had the longest throw at an impressive 396’ 8”. Ray Chapman, whose own date with death was not far off, circled the bases in 14 seconds flat to win a loving cup.
The All-Star infield consisted of Stuffy McInnis at first, Ray Chapman at second, Buck Weaver at third, and Rabbit Maranville, borrowed from the Boston Nationals, at shortstop. The All-Star pitchers were Urban Shocker, Howard Ehmke, and Walter Johnson. The thrilling contest was scoreless after seven, but with two out in the top of the eighth, Jack Barry and Dick Hoblitzel singled off Johnson, and then Duffy Lewis drove both men home with a triple to right-center. That proved to be all the scoring, as the Sox held on to win, 2–0. The real winners, however, were the widowed Mrs. Murnane and her four children, as well as two daughters from the writer’s first marriage. They collected $14,000. Boston’s owners donated the use of Fenway Park as well as all the proceeds.
As to Tim Murnane, whose name does not come up often these days, his standing remained high even in death. In the offseason following the 1939 campaign, a rookie named Ted Williams was named the team’s MVP — he received the Tim Murnane Award. In 1946 the Baseball Hall of Fame established a Roll of Honor and named Murnane one of 12 writers to be memorialized. And in 1978 he was selected as recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball journalism, along with Dick Young … another sportswriter who was said to be the most influential of his time.
In the golden age of magazines, the period 1880-1920, the newsstands were bedecked with general-interest and literary publications: the weeklies included such fare as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, and Harper’s; the monthlies boasted, among others, Atlantic, Munsey’s, McClure’s Magazine, and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Competition for rack space was fierce, as was the competition for the eye (and pocketbook) of the browser; the fees that top writers routinely received in 1920 exceed those available today, when the dollar buys so much less; and artists whose work graced magazine covers, like James Montgomery Flagg, Edward Penfield, Maxfield Parrish, and J. C. Leyendecker, became truly wealthy.
But first-class cover art had never been viewed as a necessary competitive edge for an all-sports publication until the advent of Baseball Magazine. In December 1907 veteran Boston sportswriter Jacob Morse issued a prospectus on behalf of The Baseball Magazine Company for the creation of a new, deluxe, all-baseball monthly the likes of which had never before been contemplated. Its articles would run as long as interest held, sometimes to 10,000 words; its writers would be the best the sport had to offer; and the eye appeal of the covers would compete on the newsstand with the best general-interest publications, not to mention the specialty monthlies. Morse had written Sphere and Ash, a history of the game, back in 1888 and had even managed the Boston Union Association club in 1884.
Through its first decade or so, Baseball Magazine proved an artistic and commercial success, reaching six-figure circulations that would make a modern magazine publisher envious. Here are some particularly grand examples of the painterly elegance that was the publication’s trademark at the time. By the 1920s the covers had turned rather dull in aesthetic terms–red borders around a player photograph. This heralded not only the cost cutting that characterized the magazine industry as a whole, at the dawn of the new age of radio, but also a growing perception that on the newsstand and throughout the sports/entertainment industry, it was stars, not sensibility, that sold. More’s the pity for the culture, perhaps, but in sports as in theater, the play’s the thing, and so are the players.
In yesterday’s post I spoke about King Kelly as a rough and ready player of the old school. Here’s another in that vein. Imagine a combination of the pugnacity and tenacity of Pete Rose, the speed and acrobatic ability of Ozzie Smith, and the audacity and loquacity of Deion Sanders. Now put a handlebar mustache on the player, transport him back to the four-time league champion St. Louis Browns of the 1880s, and call him Arlie Latham.
Although other players sported better stats and better dispositions, Latham came to the ballpark to beat you. He was a speedster (in 1888 he totaled 129 steals), but he stole most of his bases through daring and disregard for his body, belly-flopping for the bag and reaching out a hand, or barreling into the base, kicking up a dust storm and kicking over the baseman. He was also something of a clown and thus a fan favorite. In a game in 1882 he scored the winning run by turning a somersault over the catcher and landing on the plate. He was famous for profanely badgering the opposition and hectoring his own players, thus earning him the enmity of both and the nickname “The Freshest Man on Earth.” His private life was as tumultuous as that on the field: his first wife attempted suicide, and his second wife divorced him, charging “perversion, assault, desertion, and infidelity.” Perhaps there was more in the complaint.
In 1909 John McGraw, who had played against Latham in the 1890s and knew how he could disrupt the opposing pitcher’s concentration, hired him as baseball’s first full-time coach (Arlie had coached part-time with Cincinnati in 1900). From his box at first base, Latham would dance around, enrage the pitcher, steal signs from the catcher, and lead the fans in cheers and jeers. More constructively, perhaps, he also instructed the Giants in the art of base stealing. In 1909, incredibly, one of the Giants’ 234 stolen bases belonged to Latham himself, who at age forty-nine was activated for four games in September. When Arlie grew too old to play or coach, he stayed on with the Giants as a press-box attendant, and he remained with the Giants in an official capacity until his dying day. His baseball career spanned an incredible seventy-six years.
Buck Ewing and King Kelly were quite a pair, though they never played on the same club. Ewing was Cincinnati’s hometown hero who made his mark in the big leagues with Troy; Michael Joseph Kelly left his birthplace of Troy to become the toast (alas, too frequently, for he drank his way out of the league) of Cincinnati and several other venues, notably Chicago and Boston. Ewing was a catcher who in later years played increasingly at other positions; Kelly began as an outfielder but wound up catching nearly as many games as he played in the garden. Ewing was a model citizen and the model for all right-thinking individuals; Kelly was a reprobate and perhaps an idol for the rest of us.
They were different in all these regards, Kelly and Ewing, but they had this in common: ordinary speed on the basepaths but cleverness and breathtaking daring. “Ewing’s Famous Slide” was the title of a popular litho of the day, memorializing an apocryphal tale of his announced intent (and ultimate success) in stealing home after he had already stolen second base and third.
Ewing was born in rural Ohio in 1859, played his first professional ball with the aptly named Buckeyes, and returned to Ohio to play with and manage the Reds in the 1890s. In fact, in a story little noted today, he’d returned there in 1883, when the Troy franchise collapsed. Suddenly finding himself without a home, Ewing signed with the Cincinnati Reds of the American Association. However, the great Harmony Conference (also known as the Tripartite Agreement) of the National League, the Northwestern League, and the American Association yielded a settlement by which Ewing (and fellow Trojans Mickey Welch and Pete Gillespie) were turned over to the newly formed New York Gothams. (New York’s National League team was known as the Gothams until manager Jim Mutrie, some years hence, exclaimed that his brawny lads were “Giants.”) Ewing scored more than a run per game and played at second, short, third, and the outfield when the catching grind wore him down.
He became a legend for his audacity, pluck, and field generalship. Intangibles went a long way with fans and sportswriters back then, more so than today when stats seem to be the sole measure of the man. But Ewing could hit: once he led in homers, another time in triples, and he hit as high as .344. He could throw: the snap throw to second from a crouch position started with Buck Ewing, not Pudge Rodriguez. And he could run, too, stealing 53 bases in the Giants’ championship year of 1888.
So how great was he, really? Twenty years after his last game, veteran sportswriters compared him to Cobb and Wagner and pronounced him their peer. And when the Hall of Fame was opened in 1939, Buck Ewing, long gone but still revered in all his hometowns, became its first catcher.
Kelly’s sliding wizardry was more scientific. He developed the hook slide, whereby he encouraged his opponent to try to tag the front leg that was away from the base while his back leg landed him safe. His exploits were celebrated not only in a Harper’s Weekly print from his Chicago White Stocking days but also in a Tin Pan Alley tune, “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” that gently mocked his vanity: “Slide, Kelly, slide! Your running’s a disgrace! Slide, Kelly, slide! Stay there, hold your base!”
Kelly was the first baseball star to milk his fame for all it was worth. Product endorsements, personality licensing, theatrical appearances, Kelly pioneered them all. With Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Ball Field, he launched what has become a staple of baseball literature, the celebrity biography. Published by Emery & Hughes of Boston, this forty-six-page booklet (ghosted by Jack Drohan of the Boston Globe) is highly entertaining if not demonstrably factual. The stories about Kelly are legion, and like the ones attaching to Rube Waddell, that other great mythic figure of early baseball, if they’re not true, well, they ought to have been. History is more than the mere recitation of fact. Scrupulous fact checkers may successfully repudiate this story or that one, but they can’t attach feet of clay to Kelly’s idol because he did such a good job of that himself, drinking himself to death before he reached the age of 37.
There are a hundred great stories about the King, but let me share with you this almost certainly fictitious classic, a story that’s so often told and so illustrative of his genius that it’s better than merely true. Once, in the days when a substitution took effect upon a captain’s announcing it, an opposing batsman lifted a low foul ball toward the Boston dugout, where Kelly was taking a day off to recover from a bruise of the day before or the booze of the night before. Kelly saw his catcher would never get there in time, so he leapt from the bench, shouted, “Kelly now catching for Boston!” and snagged the fly. Not surprisingly, the rules makers changed things not long after that. No matter–rules were not made to constrain a King.
Sober or not, he was the best player in baseball in the mid-1880s. But Kelly’s high-living, fun-loving lifestyle had him in constant hot water with his Chicago manager, Cap Anson. When Kelly was sold to Boston in 1887, at the height of his career, it was for $10,000, the largest amount of money ever paid for a ballplayer. The medal given him by his Boston fans in that year was for his 84 stolen bases, the most on the club and the third best total in the league.
Out of baseball after a few games with New York in 1893, he sought a new career on the boards. He was on his way to Boston to perform Casey at the Bat at the Palace Theater in November 1894 when he was stricken with pneumonia. As they carried his stretcher into the hospital, it is said, the attendants tripped and dumped Kelly on the floor. “That’s me last slide,” he said. A few days later the “$10,000 Beauty” died.
The Unions of Morrisania were a celebrated early team, of interest for such players as George Wright, shortstop par excellence; Doug Birdsall, who went on to play professionally with George for Boston in the National Association; and Charlie Pabor, longtime pitcher and outfielder with the most inexplicable of all baseball nicknames: “The Old Woman in the Red Cap.” [Let me make an attempt: the red cap was common headgear in the French Revolution for women, who carried knitting bags under these caps; the Unions wore puffy red caps; Pabor, baseball's first lefthanded pitcher of note, may have been viewed as a revolutionary. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. His batterymate Birdsall, by the way, was known as "The Old Man."]
But I digress. Shown above is the 1866 group that brought honor to Morrisania and laid the ground for the next year’s national champions, despite the defection of Wright to the Washington Nationals. This carte de visite is the basis of the gloriously painted photograph that reposed in the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame for generations but now, after painstaking restoration, is available for viewing in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
Where is Morrisania, anyway? It’s a neighborhood in today’s South Bronx. In 1874, the area was annexed to New York City (then consisting only of Manhattan) as part of the Twenty-Third Ward. In former times, however, it was a part of the lower Bronx, which ran north to Eighth Street, now 165th Street, and south to Harlem Bridge. How do I know that? Well, I’m not 150 years old. I discovered in the annals of the Library of Congress an interview that a WPA worker conducted on August 18, 1938, with an old resident of Morrisania, Mr. T. Emery Sutton, of 430 East 160th Street in the Bronx. Mr. Sutton speaks to us today of Morrisania in the 1860s with an offhand specificity that no modern writer could hope to equal.
The Unions, as the team was called, played their games at the Triangle, on a lot behind Fisher’s coal yard, at what is now 163rd street. About 1868 or 1869 they moved to Tremont and Arthur avenues, and there built the first enclosed baseball grounds. The first game played was for the championship between the Unions and the Brooklyn Mutuals [known as the New York Mutuals to historians today, they in fact played their home games in Brooklyn]. The home team won. The price of admission was 25 cents; and I had the distinction of taking in the very first quarter. Ed. Wright was the cashier; I was only a boy at the time. There was no grand stand, only board seats.
The great baseball leagues had not yet been organized, and the only prize awarded a winning club was the ball with which the game had been played. We used to silver these balls and keep them as trophies. They were kept in a large case in Louis Comb’s establishment, Morrisania Hall. Thomas E. Sutton was the first president, and Henry J. Ford the first vice-president of the Union Baseball Club.
Our team made trips through the country, as do the big league teams today. Funds to defray expenses were donated by the townspeople, each one of them subscribing according to his inclination, and financial ability. The players used to be gone for two or three weeks at a time. Among the members of the Union team were C. Payne, D. Bickett, A. Abrams, B. Hourigan, T. Beals, and the great George Wright whose brother afterwards managed the Athletics [brother Harry managed the Boston team, not the Athletics of Philadelphia] when the leagues were organized.
“T. Beals,” by the way, was Tommy Beals, who–like the above mentioned Union members Pabor, Birdsall, and Wright, as well as Al Martin–went on to play in the first professional league and thus is immortalized with complete statistical lines dating to 1871 and beyond. Beals and Wright were such close friends that the latter named a son after him: Beals Wright (1879-1961), who like his father George and his uncle Harry made it to the Hall of Fame … the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Elected in 1956, Beals won gold medals in singles and doubles at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, and the U.S. Championship the following year.
My old friend–and by old I refer both to the duration of our friendship as well to his nonagenarian status–Ray Robinson has written a new book(let). It has been published more or less to coincide with Opening Day, that national celebration of hope. My hope is that one day, when I grow up, I can be like him.
As an impressionable lad I read Ray’s stories at SPORT Magazine and his annual paperback volumes, published under the rubric Baseball Stars. Ray’s role in my eventual career path is uncertain, but it couldn’ta hoit. I read his later, more substantial biographies of Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson when I was already hardboiled as a sportswriter and was equally impressed.
The new opus is Peanuts, Popcorn & American Presidents. It is available as an ebook, as described by its publisher here: http://www.nowandthenreader.com/peanuts-popcorn-american-presidents/. Let me offer a snippet to whet your appetite.
“Reagan never lost his affection for baseball and truly adored his annual presidential role of throwing out the opening-day ball. His form and style were proof of his athletic ability. He also watched his share of baseball on television. On the September night in 1985 when Cincinnati’s Pete Rose smacked a single in the first inning at Riverfront Stadium to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hit mark of 4,191, President Reagan was well aware of what was going on. As soon as the game ended, and while the Reds players celebrated the occasion at home plate, the president put through a congratulatory phone call to Rose.
“In his soft, low-key salesman’s voice, Reagan told Pete: ‘You’ve set the most enduring record in sports history. Your reputation and legacy will live for a long time.’
“Even at such an overwhelming moment, Pete was not at a loss for words. ‘Thank you, Mr. President, for taking time from your busy schedule,’ he said. ‘And you missed a good game!’”
A recent discussion thread on the listserv of SABR’s Nineteenth Century Baseball group focused interestingly (to me, anyhow) on the odd sport of baseball on roller skates, an 1880s fad that followed upon the 1860s passion for baseball on ice. Priscilla Astifan of Rochester wrote: “I only found the one reference to baseball on roller skates so far, but a review of the Early Newspaper Index indicates polo games at the roller skating rinks in Rochester also. I naturally assumed that the game was not played on horseback although one star attraction at a Rochester rink was Dolly the Roller Skating Horse. Anyway, I have since learned of the variants of polo, even canoe, and auto polo which surprised me most.” At this my whiskers tingled, as I recalled that some years back I had first learned about pushball and its automobile version, about which more below.
Novelty baseball games flourished in the 1880s, as did the professional game throughout the land. The National League, founded in 1876, was followed in short order by three rivals: the American Association (1882), the Union Association (1884) and the Players League (1890). Play-for-pay variants were particularly prominent in Philadelphia; ethnic teams, “colored” male and female ball teams, Native-American nines, crippled clubs, and so on. John Lang, a white barber from Philadelphia who had “temporarily deserted lather and razor” to organize pioneer black baseball clubs such as the Orion, found his true métier in New York with his Chinese teams. In Chester, Pennsylvania, Lang also created a fetching nine of “colored girl” professional players whom he named the Dolly Vardens after the fluffily and colorfully costumed lass in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Fat men contested with lean men in “Jumbos vs. Shadows” matches, just as married vs. single games had been common in the amateur era. Of the players of the Snorkey Club of Philadelphia (named for the one-armed hero of the drama Under the Gaslight), one had an arm off at the shoulder, another had a paralyzed arm, the rest were minus a hand; their opponents in a game of May 23, 1883, were the Hoppers, who were all one-legged or on crutches. In a reminder to modern readers of the brutality of the industrial age in America, both sides were said to consist wholly of former employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1885, two clubs of the New York State League, Binghamton and Rochester, played on roller skates at the Pioneer Rink in the former city (it was these contests that informed last week’s discussion on the listserv.) In 1887, George Hancock of Chicago invented indoor baseball as a winter sport; it survives as today’s softball.
I knew that hockey was the ancient game of shinny transplanted onto ice, that baseball had evolved through bat and ball games dating back to the banks of the Nile, that football was a game even more ancient. But I had always believed that James Naismith was the lone true “inventor” of a major sport, when he nailed peach baskets at opposite ends of the overhead track at a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts on December 15, 1891. As a physical-education instructor he felt that his students needed a vigorous indoor game for the winter months, and so — boing! — basketball.
Only a few years back, however, I learned that the idea for the game of basketball did not alight on Naismith’s pate in a Eureka moment. An Associated Press story about a 2006 auction of his recently unearthed relics indicated that he had been inspired to invent basketball by recalling a game he had played as a boy in Canada — “Duck on a Rock,” a medieval game of rock-throwing and tag. More interestingly to me, it reported also that before coming up with basketball he had invented other games in that winter of 1891: “He tried to adapt lacrosse and football to be played inside. He even introduced his students to a slew of invented games like Hylo Ball, Scruggy Ball and Association Football. None of them took.”
Hylo Ball? Scruggy Ball? These innovations had been lost to history until then. For an opening bid of $10,000 at Heritage Auction Galleries (the hammer price proved much higher), one might purchase Naismith’s crudely typed rules for these heretofore hidden bypaths of basketball.
Too rich for my taste, as just one week earlier I had purchased much more modestly an Open Sesame to a whole lost world of sport: auto pushball, a variant game deriving from pushball, itself very nearly as strange and obscure. The original game of pushball had been invented by Moses G. Crane of Newton, Massachusetts in 1894, barely before the age of the automobile and only three years after Naismith’s brainstorm. But I get ahead of myself.
I was on my way out of an antique shop on Catskill’s Main Street that has long been a favorite haunt when I spotted a cardboard poster depicting three 1930s hot rods maneuvering around a huge ball. There wasn’t much left of it — mice had had their way with it — so the proprietor, who said the placard had come from a barn in nearby Coxsackie, let me have it for $8.00.
Bringing it home and prowling the internet, I was able to reconstruct the wording as:
B. WARD BEAM’S New 1933
10 OTHER THRILLERS!
B. Ward Beam and Company were probably entertaining crowds at the Greene County Fair, but I guessed that an “International Congress of Dare-Devils” was not designed to be a local phenomenon. It turned out that Beam was a thrill-show racer and entrepreneur even more important historically than the names that may have greater resonance today—Barney Oldfield, Aut Swenson, Earl “Lucky” Teter and his Hell Drivers, the Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers, Jack Kochman’s Champion Hell Drivers, Joie Chitwood’s Chevy Thunder Show. All that Beam did was to invent the auto thrill show, when he launched his Congress of Dare-Devils in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923. Soon he was playing county and state fairs in Michigan, Indiana, and parts west. The Chicago Tribune of February 18, 1925 reported that “Country people will not attend an agricultural exhibit unless they are assured of plenty of entertainment…. Auto push-ball is a new form of amusement offered that is meeting with favor.”
Did Beam invent auto pushball as well as the auto thrill show? Almost certainly not, as the Washington Post of May 9, 1922 features an image of auto pushball — the only other one I have come across besides my poster — at San Francisco, and Beam appears not to have taken his show to California. “The latest sport to be inaugurated on the Pacific Coast is auto pushball. In it one gets many a thrill, for it is more exciting and hazardous than polo. Six autos are needed to play the game, three of them constituting a team. The same rushes apply that are used in polo. The game originated in San Francisco.”
Beam’s troupe may have been in Davenport, Iowa for a “motor rodeo” on Memorial Day in 1926, when, according to the Davenport Democrat and Leader, “the champion Canadian and American push ball teams are slated to play their [tie-breaking] thirty-first game on the 1926 championship schedule.” Surely this was Barnumesque promotion to inflate interest as much hot air filled the Spalding-Goodyear ball used for the occasion. Auto pushball was just one of many attractions, from motorcycle racers to aerial acrobats, and was tame entertainment when contrasted with the staples of the Beam show: demolition derbies, leaping buses, flaming barriers, and sundry death-defying stunts.
The August 6, 1931 Amherst (NY) Bee contained this telling advertisement: “Wanted: Single man, not over 25 years, to drive automobile in head-on collision with another car at the Albion Fairgrounds in connection with the Congress of Daredevils on August 19. Must crash with another car at 40 mph and give unconditional release in case of injury or death. Name your lowest price. Write B. Ward Beam, Albion, N.Y.”
His traveling shows continued into the 1950s but biographical data about B. Ward Beam has proved hard to come by. From his 1917 draft card I learned that he was born November 18, 1892, had a wife and two children as of that time, and was a student at an aviation school in Celina, Ohio. His Social Security data indicates that he died in September 1979 (no precise date given) in Goshen, New York.
Even after his thrill-show days were done (he played the Orange County Fair in the late 1940s and early 1950s), he continued to book acts for county fairs through the Ward Beam Agency in Goshen as late as 1973. And there the trail ended, though I would certainly like to hear from any reader who knows more about this fascinating auto-race pioneer.
Pushball’s pioneer, Moses G. Crane, is known today instead as an inventor and manufacturer of the fire alarm box. What bit of whimsy drove him, as a member of the Newton Athletic Association in 1894, to devise the game of pushball is beyond my reconstruction. However, he did not live to see its rapid progress in the first decade of the next century, as he committed suicide on July 7, 1898 in Newton.
Photographs survive of teams grappling with the six-foot-diameter leather-covered ball weighing 50 to 100 pounds, reminiscent of the giant breast chasing Woody Allen through the fields in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. There is even a 1903 documentary short, produced in England but distributed in the U.S. as well, described in the catalogs as “A splendid and most interesting picture of a new game by two teams using a ball 6 feet in diameter. Taken at the Crystal Palace, London.” The game depicted in the film had been played in the previous October; a game two months earlier at Headingley had been between two eight-man squads representing England and America.
Such a grand international setting … and not even a decade after its first media splash, when pushball was played between the halves of a Harvard-Brown football game played at Soldiers Field in Cambridge. The Boston Globe of October 20, 1895 reported: “It was very amusing yesterday to see the large ball rolled from side to side. Now and then a man got under the ball, and sometimes the ball was raised way above the heads of the men. The players got into very amusing attitudes…. every one who saw the exhibition was highly entertained….” The student newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in its report of the game that day, added, “Although the game is said to be conducted on carefully studied scientific principles, the first impression on the spectators was irresistibly comical.”
Adding to the comic effect, in 1902 pushball was played on horseback in Berlin and at Durland’s Riding Academy in New York, where basketball on horseback had also made its debut that year. In the following year pushball was played for laughs at Madison Square Garden. At some universities the game replaced class rush as the favored ritual clash between freshmen and sophomores. An Iowa City postcard from 1909 depicted a riotous pushball contest on “Farmers Day.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, however, played it straight when describing pushball as a “game played by two sides on a field usually 140 yds. long and 50 yds. wide, with a ball 6 ft. in diameter and 50 lb in weight. The sides usually number eleven each, there being five forwards, two left-wings, two right-wings and two goal. The goals consist of two upright posts 18 ft. high and 20 ft. apart with a crossbar 7 ft. from the ground. The game lasts for two periods with an intermission. Pushing the ball under the bar counts 5 points; lifting or throwing it over the bar counts 8. A touchdown behind goal for safety counts 2 to the attacking side.”
Oddly, pushball continued to flourish into the 1940s in military training environments. In 1916, on the eve of America’s entry into World War I, a British short film depicting pushball offers a title card that reads: “Yale students engaged in an exciting game of push ball. This game has been recommended as being particularly suitable for soldiers who have lost their sight at the front.” U.S. Marines in training played it in 1918 at Camp Lewis, American Lake, Washington and in the 1940s at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Revived in Australia in 1971 as “sogball,” the game featured a vinyl-covered ball that punctured within minutes. The game was described by one of the organizers of the intravarsity contests as the “stupidest occupation possible, involving the greatest number of participants.”
All the same, it sure looked like fun, which is more than can be said of many of our sports. Requiescat in pace, pushball.
This continues a story commenced yesterday at http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/03/18/thinking-robinson/. During the early professional period that, in the 1870s, produced the first leagues, dozens of black ballplayers sought to earn a living. Several pioneers come in for special note: William Edward White, born of a Georgia slave and her white master, enrolled at Brown University and played on its celebrated baseball club. On June 21, 1879, the Providence Grays, a National League club at that time, needed a replacement for the injured first baseman Joe Start. In those less formal days, before the advent of farm clubs, they invited White to play. He got a hit, scored a run, and played flawlessly in the field as Providence defeated Cleveland, 5–3. White returned to the ball field for Brown in 1880 but never played for Providence again.
Until 2004, when a study revealed White’s historic role as the first African-American major leaguer, nearly all fans believed that the man who had earned that distinction was Jackie Robinson, in 1947. Only a handful of scholarly types knew that two brothers from Oberlin College, the Walkers, had preceded Jackie by playing with the Toledo Blues in 1884. William White was the first, but the Walker story resonates more strongly with us today.
After starring in baseball with Oberlin College’s inaugural nine in 1881, Moses Fleetwood Walker was invited to play for the strong semiprofessional White Sewing Machine club, based in Cleveland. The visiting Whites ran into a problem before a scheduled game with the Eclipse club in Louisville (the Eclipse would enter the major-league American Association as a charter member the following spring). As the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on August 22, 1881, “players of the Eclipse Club objected to Walker playing on account of his color. In vain the Clevelands protested that he was their regular catcher, and that his withdrawal would weaken the nine.” The White Sewing Machine manager held Walker out, but when his replacement catcher bruised his hand and refused to come out for the second inning, the crowd began to call for Walker to go behind the bat. He … was disinclined to do so, after the general ill-treatment he had received; but as the game seemed to be in danger of coming to an end, he consented, and started in the catcher’s stand. Louisville’s players walked off the field.”
In 1883, Walker helped the Toldeo Blue Stockings win the Northwestern League championship but again had a run-in regarding his race. After arriving in Toledo for an exhibition contest, Cap Anson announced that his Chicago White Stockings would not take the field with Walker in the lineup. Toledo manager Billy Voltz, who had planned to give Walker the day off anyway, decided to start him in right field, daring Anson to walk away from his share of the gate after having traveled some distance. Anson gave in, grumbling that he would never again bring his club to Toledo, while also beginning to nurture a personal grudge against Walker.
When Toledo moved up to the big-leagues in 1884, with the American Association, Walker played in forty-two games, batting a respectable .263, and was joined briefly by his brother Weldy, but he was released near the end of the season after suffering a broken shoulder. He would be the last black player in the major leagues until 1947, but Fleet Walker played in integrated leagues each year from 1883 through 1889, seven consecutive seasons. Although the public liked him, he continued to suffer many indignities at the hands of opponents and teammates alike.
In a later, more celebrated incident, when Chicago’s National Leaguers faced the Newark club of the International League in an exhibition game in mid-1887, Anson ran into Walker again, this time with a black battery mate in left-handed pitcher George Stovey. He insisted upon their removal, and this time he prevailed. It is easy to overstate Anson’s role in establishing the color bar of the 1880s. He was not alone—racism was not only prevalent among the virulent lower classes with pale skin, but also casually assumed and expressed by the upper classes. Unless you were white, wealthy, and male, the good old days, they were terrible.
It was in 1887 that race relations in the International League came to a boil. Buffalo’s black second baseman Frank Grant starred in the league, one notch below the majors. Another black second baseman, Sol White, played on integrated clubs in Wheeling, West Virginia and Fort Wayne, Indiana. After years of electioneering on their behalf by members of the Society for American Baseball Research, of which I have been a happy member for 33 years—both received their Baseball Hall of Fame plaques in 2006. (For more about Sol White, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/12/28/sol-white-recalls-baseballs-greatest-days/.)
After 1887 it became clear, yet again, that for blacks to find their place in baseball, it would have to be on the barnstorming circuit, with such legendary clubs as the Cuban Giants, or in a league of their own: a short-lived National Colored League of 1887 (it lasted two weeks) presaged the successful organization of the Negro National League in 1920. The Cuban Giants were an aggregation born in 1885 from the merger of four earlier black professional clubs: the Keystones, the Orions, the Manhattans, and the Argyles of Babylon, Long Island.
Not one of the players was Cuban but, given America’s friendliness toward its island neighbor (and historic lust for its annexation), African-American ballplayers had been led to believe they would have an easier time playing before white audiences if they pretended to be Cubans or Spaniards . . . exotics of color rather than colored Americans. James Weldon Johnson, who was raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and learned to speak Spanish from a Cuban boyhood friend, observed that while traveling by rail in the 1890s, he was treated much better by railroad employees and fellow passengers after they heard him speak Spanish and surmised that he was not African-American but Cuban. “In such situations,” he concluded, “any kind of Negro will do; provided he is not one who is an American citizen.”
The light-skinned Frank Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express in 1887, had been a star in the league one year before joining Buffalo. His reward was to come in for unceasing attack. (For a fuller treatment of Frank Grant, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/06/18/safe-at-home/.) Ned Williamson, second baseman of the Chicago White Stockings, told Sporting Life:
The Buffalos … had a Negro for second base. He was a few lines blacker than a raven, but he was one of the best players…. The haughty Caucasians of the association were willing to permit darkies to carry water to them or guard the bat bag, but it made them sore to have the name of one in the batting list. They made a cabal against this man and incidentally introduced a new feature into the game. The players of the opposing teams made it their special business in life to “spike” this brunette Buffalo. They would tarry at second when they might have easily made third, just to toy with the sensitive shins of this second baseman. The poor man played in two games out of five perhaps; the rest of the time he was on crutches. To give the frequent spiking of the darkey an appearance of accident the “feet first” slide was practiced. The negro got wooden armor for his legs and went into the field with the appearance of a man wearing nail kegs for stockings.
After leaving the Buffalo club in 1889, Frank Grant played for many teams, though mostly for the Cuban Giants. On September 1, 1892, Frederick Douglass, Sr. came to Washington’s National Park to watch Grant and his Cuban Giants play against the “colored” All-Washingtons. Grant also appeared with top black teams like the Cuban X-Giants (1898-99), the Genuine Cuban Giants (1900-01), and the Philadelphia Giants (1902-03), and barnstormed in towns along the Hudson and Housatonic rivers. After 1905 the trail of his playing record goes cold, though he was invited to play in a 1909 benefit game for the ailing Bud Fowler, an African-American baseball pioneer who had written, “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind…. My skin is against me.” Grant died on May 27, 1937, with no one in baseball knowing that he was still alive.
And yet … when Jackie Robinson made his spectacular International League debut on April 19, 1946, getting four hits in Montreal’s 14-1 rout of Jersey City, the New York Times story concluded thus: “There have been other Negro players in the International League. Ernie Lanigan supplied the information that a Frank Grant played at second base for Buffalo and a Moses Walker caught for Newark in a game between those two teams on April 30, 1887.”
That other, aforementioned second baseman in the International League of 1887, Bud Fowler, is, with Buck O’Neil, the most significant baseball player NOT in the Hall of Fame. Born John Jackson in upstate New York in 1858 and raised, ironically, in Cooperstown, Fowler first achieved recognition as a 20-year-old pitcher for a club in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In April 1878, Fowler defeated the National League’s Boston club, which included future Hall of Famers George Wright and Jim O’Rourke, 2-1, in an exhibition game, besting 40-game winner Tommy Bond. For the next five years, he toiled for a variety of independent and semi-professional teams in the United States and Canada. Despite a reputation as “one of the best pitchers on the continent,” he failed to catch on with any major or minor league squads. In 1884, now appearing regularly as a second baseman, and only occasionally as a pitcher, Fowler joined Stillwater, Minnesota, in the Northwestern League. In 1885 he played with another integrated club, in Keokuk, Iowa. “He is one of the best general players in the country,” reported Sporting Life in 1885, “and if he had a white face he would be playing with the best of them…. Those who know, say there is no better second baseman in the country.”
In late June of 1887, Fowler’s Binghamton teammates in the International League refused to take the field unless the management removed him from the lineup. Soon after, on July 7, the club submitted to these demands.
As opportunities for Negro players were limited after 1890, Fowler played independent ball for the next four years. In 1895 he went to Adrian, Michigan, where he organized a black team for the Page Woven Wire Fence Company. And so was born the Page Fence Giants, one of the crack Negro teams of that period. Fowler and a handful of other blacks continued to play on integrated teams until the mid-1890s. All-black teams were imported intact into some lower minor leagues, but by 1899 Bill “Hippo” Galloway was the last African American in Organized Baseball at any level, appearing in five games with Woodstock of the Canadian League. Fowler, who began playing ball in Cooperstown, will be honored on April 20–five days after Jackie Robinson Day–with the naming of the entrance to Doubleday Field as Fowler Way and the installation of a permanent plaque in the brick wall of the first-base bleachers. I will be there that day, one of those speaking on his behalf.
Jimmy Claxton “passed” as white to pitch in a few games for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Once his race was suspected he was shuffled off the roster, but a few days before, he had happened to be present when the Zee-Nut Candy photographers came to the park to secure images for their trading card series. Claxton’s card in the 1916 set is a highly desirable item. One of these rare cards, rated by condition as a 3 out of 10, was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $7,200 in June 2005.
Understand that while Jackie Robinson was not the first, he was and will always be the most important African American baseball pioneer—every day of the year, not only on his April 15 anniversary. Robinson and Rickey forced America to confront the falsehood that baseball could truly be a national pastime while excluding peoples of color, any color. While the baseball playing population of African Americans in the major leagues has diminished from a high of purportedly 28 percent in the late 1960s—actually it peaked near 20 percent in 1975—to perhaps 8 percent today, more people of color play the game in the major leagues than have ever done so before. If you count all dark-skinned people, whatever their nation of origin–the number is over 40 percent today, and the upward trend is inexorable.
America is a nation of nations, and its emblematic game is enriched by reflecting that truth. Today Asians and Hispanics as well as African Americans—and I hope one day soon, women—have to answer only one question from baseball: how well can they play?
Here’s a story about the bridge that Jackie Robinson crossed, and some of the men who built that bridge. I was going to deliver this as a speech last month, to close out a regional celebration of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s traveling exhibition, Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience. But because I was suddenly laid low by a bout of ill health, from which I have since recovered, the event had to be cancelled and the speech shelved. Now, as we near Jackie Robinson Day, I thought I’d share these thoughts with you, in two parts. Please note that in some period accounts quoted below, language regarded as offensive today is reproduced verbatim.
A feature film, titled 42, about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 will have its premiere pretty soon, on April 12 in fact. (Had the studio scheduled the opening three days later, they would have launched on the very date that Jackie first wore that number at Ebbets Field; oh well—I’m sure they knew that.) Harrison Ford will play Branch Rickey, Chadwick Boseman will play Jackie, and the screenwriters will get the story right, largely. However, a film will take dramatic license that the written word may not. Like the newsman in the great western picture The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the director of 42 must say, “This is baseball, folks. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
To a greater extent than Hollywood, a historian is obliged to follow the trail of fact. It diminishes Rickey and Robinson not one bit to think about all those black players of long ago who built the bridge, as my friend Buck O’Neil said, that Jackie Robinson walked across.
I will wish to talk about how African Americans came into the game—as early as slaves playing ball 25 miles south of my home, in Kingston, in 1820—then were excluded from it, and then readmitted only to have the gate close again. The story of the Negro Leagues, founded in 1920, has been amply covered by recent scholars, so I will skip over the well-worn tales of Josh and Satch and Rube and Oscar to focus on some stories and some names that most baseball fans may not know.
My dear departed friend Jules Tygiel and I broke a story back in 1988 which has gained little traction over these 25 years. The popular “frontier” image of Jackie Robinson as a lone gunman facing down a hostile mob has always dominated the story of the integration of baseball. But new information we uncovered revealed that while Robinson was the linchpin in the grand strategy to integrate major league baseball, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars too. Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Robinson alone into the spotlight. He was to have been joined on the Brooklyn Dodgers by at least two other players, chosen from among Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Sam Jethroe. But that is another story from the one I propose to tell now. (For that earlier piece, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/04/15/jackie-robinsons-signing-the-real-story/.)
Even in its cradle, baseball was bound up with the issue of inclusion and exclusion—whom do we, the entrenched class, permit to play alongside us? In New York City around 1840 there were those who thought the newly codified game of baseball should model cricket—as a diversion for “gentlemen,” those with sufficient money and thus leisure to play an afternoon’s game of ball. William Rufus Wheaton, the man who drew up the rules of the first baseball club, the New Yorks of 1837, recalled in later years: “The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. . . .”
Clubs of working-class origin followed soon enough, to the dismay of the white-collar crowd. A largely Irish club, the Magnolia, formed in 1843; a more celebrated and long-lived one, the Atlantic, was created in Brooklyn in 1855. The first African American clubs, three in number, were thought to have been from Brooklyn as well, beginning in 1859: the Unknowns, the Monitors, and the Uniques of Williamsburgh were in the field that season, but little trace of their activities can be found in the papers of the day. Ball games were played on Emancipation Day, when, the Eagle admitted, “20,000 colored gathered in two suburban Brooklyn parks.” Only last month, however, researcher John Zinn discovered a reference in the press to a St. John’s “colored club” in Newark, New Jersey going back to 1855.
In those superheated decades before the Civil War, anti-black sentiment was no more prevalent than anti-Irish. The upper crust lumped the two together as a permanent problem. Even Henry David Thoreau, that apostle of independence and reason, wrote in his journal, “The question is whether you can bear freedom. At present the vast majority of men, whether black or white, require the discipline of labor which enslaves them for their good. If the Irishman did not shovel all day, he would get drunk and quarrel.” Such was the climate when baseball began in earnest.
In truth, young people of both colors and genders had played a game they called baseball long before New York snobs took to organizing clubs and restricting membership. A decade ago, I became fleetingly famous for discovering an ordinance from 1791 barring the play of baseball in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—a real shocker to those who thought baseball had begun in Cooperstown in 1839. We also know that young men and women played a game called baseball, without benefit of a bat, in England in the 1740s and probably long before.
African Americans had played baseball near Madison Square in the 1840s, not far from the grounds of the New York and Knickerbocker clubs before they relocated to Hoboken’s Elysian Fields. In Rochester, in 1859, Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the great abolitionist orator, played baseball with the integrated Charter Oak Juniors. When young Douglass moved to Washington, he helped to form another baseball club, the all-black Alerts, which became the first such club to play against a first-rank white one, the Olympics of Washington, DC, in late September 1869. (The first interracial game took place in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier, with the black Pythians playing against the white Olympics, both of that city.)
Researchers had found reference to ball play by antebellum slaves in the South, but no evidence was put forth that the game they played was baseball as we might understand it—a game that went by that name, or another that bore the central feature of bases run in the round. (In Massachusetts well into the 1850s, for example, the names “base ball” and “round ball” were used interchangeably to describe the same game.) Frederick Douglass, Sr., wrote in his autobiography, published in 1845, that at holiday time “by far the larger part [of slave communities] engaged in such sports and merriments as ball playing, wrestling, running foot races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey: and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters.” But only in the past year Randall Brown discovered an account in a Kingston newspaper of an elderly barber recalling that in 1820 or so—seven years before the “peculiar institution” was abolished in New York State—he and his fellow slaves had played baseball. The source was a story in the Daily Freeman, of August 19, 1881, headlined:
A Colored Resident. Henry Rosecranse Columbus, Jr. Some Incidents in the Life of an Old Resident of Kingston. Born a Slave, He Lives to Become Wealthy and an Example to His Race.
“We used to have a great deal better time than that you do now,” said Mr. Rosecranse, born in 1804. “We didn’t have a big city with lamps and curb stones and paved walks, and had to go round through the mud, but we had more holidays. There was the Pinkster holiday, the Great Holiday for the colored men. They used to meet at Black Horse Tavern … and shoot for turkeys. Then the colored men raced horses on Peter Sharpe’s lane…. After the races they used to play ball for egg nog.”
The reporter asked, “Was it base ball as now played?”
“Something like it,” came the reply, “only the ball wasn’t near so hard, and we used to have much more fun playing.”
This find may seem a small thing, but in my world, where such a discovery had been sought for decades, it was simply fantastic! Looking at records in the South all these years, it may not have occurred to anyone to look in the North, where slavery lived far longer than we may imagine today. (For more on this subject, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/12/26/did-african-american-slaves-play-baseball/.)
We do not have an unbroken record of blacks playing ball into the 1860s, but in the years following Emancipation black teams began not only to play against white ones but also to seek a level of acceptance in the larger society. Philadelphia’s Pythian Base Ball Club, a formidable African American aggregation of the 1860s, tried to gain admission to the all-white National Association of Base Ball Players, the regulatory and rulemaking body for all first-class clubs. The Ball Players’ Chronicle, a sporting weekly, commented that the report of the Nominating Committee in 1867 recommended the exclusion of the Pythians and any other club that included even one African-American player.
Reconstruction after the defeat of the Confederacy was seen by many upper-class twits as a healing period to be approached with delicacy. In seeking to keep out of the convention the discussion of any subject that might be seen to have a political bearing, they had drawn game’s first overt color line. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”
The Philadelphia City Item in 1869 pushed heavily for some white club to play the Pythians. The following, from the August 7, 1869 issue, gives some interesting insights into the difficulty. Richard Hershberger shared this with the SABR research community:
Five thousand persons would pay fifty cents each to see the Athletics play the Pythians. Now, as the Athletics want money, here is a chance to raise it in an honorable way. The Pythians think they can beat the Athletics. Why not give them a trial? Oh–but Fisler, who is a roaring, red-hot Democrat, objects; and so does that Black Republican Reach, and so does Curthbert [sic] , and so does that other fine gentleman–that refined, educated, tasteful young gentleman–who says “the Pythians are d–d niggers!” But, an intelligent public–a fair-minded, liberal generous public, would like to see this contest, and it should take place. Let the Pythians begin with the Athletics, then the Keystones, next the Olympics, then the City Item, and keep on until they find their playing level. We are sure they will play like gentlemen, and beat everything except the professionals.
Speaking of this interesting proposition, the Sunday Dispatch says:
“The propriety of playing the Pythian Club is now a subject of debate in base ball circles. The Pythians are a colored club, and that is an objection to playing them. But they are anxious to measure their strength against some first-class white club, and are especially desirous to play the Athletics. We have not seen the Pythians play, but are told they are a very strong club. They are stout, muscular, active colored men, well-behaved and genteel, who take a deep interest in base ball, but have been unable to find any club to meet them. Now the question is, “Will the Athletics or Keystones play them a match?” Some of our players think it would not be en regle for white men to play against colored men, and oppose any proposition for a match. But others say that if colored muscle can beat white muscle it ought to have a chance. For ourselves, we only state the fact that the Pythian Club is willing to play against any organization in this city, and that thus far no white club has consented to meet them. It is certain that any match of the kin would draw an immense crowd, and we are confident that such players as Reach, Foran, Cuthbert and Radcliffe would see that the modest colored youths would have fair play, and that the spectators would look at the game with unusual interest. One or two of the Republican papers have intimated that the Athletics are afraid to play the Pythians. This is merely one of the slanders to which the Athletics are exposed. They are not afraid to play any club in the country, and they will prove it in any proper way.”
In 1870 the New York Clipper, another sporting weekly, made bold to offer, “we would suggest that the colored clubs of New York and Philadelphia at once take measures to organize a National Association of their own.” In this remark one may detect the general direction for black baseball in all the years up to Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers … yet before blacks looked to a league of their own, there were notable forays into the mainstream of America’s game.
Part 2 tomorrow.
Ed Walsh,born in Plains County, Pennsylvania, not far from Wilkes-Barre, began his Organized Baseball career pitching for the Meriden, Connecticut, team in 1902. After a few unremarkable seasons in the minors he was finally drafted by the White Sox, with whom he became one of the American League greats. Famed for his spitball, Walsh was a workhorse, hurling more than 360 innings in five of of the six years 1907-1912–and leading the American League in saves five times!. In 1908 he won 40 games, a feat matched only once in the 20th century, by fellow spitballer Jack Chesbro in 1904. In the 1912 City Series between the White Sox and Cubs His career ERA of 1.82 is the lowest ever.
But 1912 was his last great year, as he ruined his arm in the October City Series between Chicago’s Cubs and Sox. In Game 1 Walsh threw nine innings of a scoreless tie, allowing only one hit. Then he pitched three innings of relief in Game 2, which after 12 innings resulted in another tie. The Cubs took the next three games,placing the Sox on the brink of elimination. The Sox took the next three to even the Series. Although he had already pitched three complete games and relieved twice in nine days, Walsh was named to start the series finale. He was in top form, hurling his second shutout of the Series, a five-hitter for his fourth complete game. Walsh, who had won twenty-seven games during the regular season, won only eight the next year, and only thirteen in his final five seasons of major league ball. Here he recalls his greatest day in baseball, as told to Francis J. Powers ca. 1940.
Did you ever see Larry Lajoie bat? No. Then you missed something. I want to tell you that there was one of the greatest hitters–and fielders, too–ever in baseball. There’s no telling the records he’d have made if he’d hit against the lively ball. To tell you about my greatest day, I’ll have to go back there to October, 1908, when I fanned Larry with the bases full and the White Sox chances for the pennant hanging on every pitch to the big Frenchman.
That was October 3, and the day after I had that great game with Addie Joss and he beat me 1 to 0 with a perfect game; no run–no hits-no man reached first. There was a great pitcher and a grand fellow, Addie. One of my closest friends and he’d have been one of the best of all time only for his untimely death two years later. That game was a surprise to both of us for we were sitting on a tarpaulin talking about having some singing in the hotel that night, when Lajoie, who managed Cleveland, and Fielder Jones told us to warm up. A pitcher never knew when he’d work in those days.
I don’t think there’ll ever be another pennant race like there was in the American League that year. All summer four teams, the Sox, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis, had been fighting and three of ‘em still had a chance on this day. When Joss beat me the day before it left us two and one-half games behind the Tigers and two behind the Naps (as Cleveland was called in honor of Lajoie). We had only four games left to play.
It was a Saturday and the biggest crowd ever to see a game in Cleveland up to that date jammed around the park. Jones started Frank Smith for us and we got him three runs off Glenn Liebhardt and were leading by two going into the seventh. I was in the bull pen, ready for anything because, as I said, we had to win this one.
As I recall it George Perring, the shortstop, was first up for Cleveland and he went all the way to second when Patsy Dougherty muffed his fly in the sun. I began to warm up in a hurry. Nig Clarke batted for Liebhardt and fanned and things looked better. Smith would have been out of trouble only Tannehill fumbled Josh Clarke’s grounder and couldn’t make a play. Clarke stole second and that upset Smith and he walked Bill Bradley.
I rushed to the box and the first batter I faced was Bill Hinchman. Bill wasn’t a champion hitter but he was a tough man in a pinch. I knew his weakness was a spit ball on the inside corner so I told Sully (Billy Sullivan) we’d have to get in close on him. I did. My spitter nearly always broke down and I could put it about where I wanted. Bill got a piece of the ball and hit a fast grounder that Tannehill fielded with one hand and we forced Perring at the plate.
So, there were two out and Larry at bat. Now if the Frenchman had a weakness it was a fast ball, high and right through the middle. If you pitched inside to him, he’d tear a hand off the third baseman and if you pitched outside he’d knock down the second baseman. I tried him with a spit ball that broke to the inside and down. You know a spit ball was heavy and traveled fast. Lajoie hit the pitch hard down the third base line and it traveled so fast that it curved 20 feet, I’d guess, over the foul line and into the bleachers. There was strike one.
My next pitch was a spitter on the outside and Larry swung and tipped it foul back to the stands. Sully signed for another spitter but I just stared at him; I never shook him off with a nod or anything like that. He signed for the spitter twice more but still I just looked at him. Then Billy walked out to the box. “What’s the matter?” Bill asked me. “I’ll give him a fast one,” I said, but Billy was dubious. Finally, he agreed. I threw Larry an overhand fast ball that raised and he watched it come over without ever an offer. “Strike three!” roared Silk O’Loughlin. Lajoie sort of grinned at me and tossed his bat toward the bench without ever a word. That was the high spot of my baseball days, fanning Larry in the clutch and without him swinging.
I like to think back to the White Sox of those days. In 1906, we won the pennant and beat the Cubs in the World Series. Next season we were in the pennant race until the last days of September and in 1908 we fought them down to the final day of the season. There never was a fielding first baseman like Jiggs Donahue in 1908 when he set a record for assists. Sullivan was a great catcher, one of the greatest. It was a great team, a smart team. But the tops of all days was when I fanned Lajoie with the bases filled. Not many pitchers ever did that.